Asperger’s and Mimicry or Imitation — My Experience

Even butterflies do it

Copycats!

Viceroy and Monarch

Within the past two years, around the same time I realized I had Asperger’s, I had a parallel realization. Actually, it was so sudden, I think it fairly qualifies as an epiphany: I often mimicked the speech and related behavior of others.

It was unconscious and not apparent to me at the time. But now, looking back at many years of social interaction, I apprehended that if I was talking to a person who spoke slowly, I would often speak slowly — even though words usually leave my mouth like bullets from a machine gun. Or, if he or she said “um,” “you know” or other filter words a lot, so would I. If the person had a strange cadence, pausing every several words, I’d do that too. Same for people who cut sentences short, left the last word trailing off, who spoke with a rat-a-tat delivery, or who over-annunciated, contorting their lips into dramatic postures. I even added regional accents to my speech sometimes, to match the speakers’. Whatever the person’s delivery, inflection and cadences, I would often adopt them as my own, for the duration of the encounter.

And it wasn’t just speech, the imitation included body language and other speech-related behavior too. Of course, I didn’t, or couldn’t, engage in this behavior in group settings (who would I focus on?); it had to be one-on-one. And even then, I didn’t always do it. But I did it a lot.

I can’t pinpoint the exact day I discovered it, but I remember what I thought: I’m a chameleon. The realization was kinda cool but mostly freaky and troubling. If it was true, if I only echoed the speech and behavior of others, how could I know what my “true” conversational style was? Did I even have one? (As a side note, I’ve been successful in debate and other forms of public speaking, but in those arenas, there are effectively rules about how to speak — annunciating words clearly, using hand gestures a certain way, etc.)

Chameleon

Is this me, metaphorically?

The good news was that because my imitation only happened one-on-one, I figured I should be able to discover my “true” style by examining past group interactions. I didn’t participate much but I did participate, at least minimally. So I thought about those interactions, and concluded I did have my own style, it just was often hidden. If I had to summarize it, I’d say I spoke quickly, tended to stop briefly at the end of clauses, often trailed off at the end of sentences, because I assumed others knew where I was headed logically, or what I meant. And I naturally used “big” words (as others put it). I certainly had the classic Aspie characteristics of talking too much, too quickly, passionately and loudly when the topic was dear to my heart.

I also researched the topic of mimicry/imitation and found some references, such as here and here. And I learned there’s even a term for it, at least when used in a certain narrow context, echolalia. The few sources I found seemed to suggest it was more common in women. A female Aspie even did a detailed survey of women to see how common the trait was.

These sources also indicated the mimicry was not limited to one-one-one interactions but was more general in nature; Aspies often adopted the mannerisms of peers, family, friends, even people on TV. And here’s something I found really interesting: Aspies didn’t necessarily mimic people of the same gender. Sometimes, women imitated men or men imitated women. The survey I mentioned above found that 41.93% of female Aspies said they copied the behavior of both genders. And as Tony Atwood, one of the leading experts on Asperger’s, explained: “A boy with Asperger’s syndrome may notice how popular his sister is with her peers. He may also recognize that girls and women, especially his mother, are naturally socially intuitive; so to acquire social abilities, he starts to imitate girls.”

When I saw that last bit of information, I couldn’t help thinking that, maybe, the observation applied to me. (Oh no.) I never thought of myself as feminine, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t say I was an exemplar of masculinity either. I mean, I played lots of sports and did reasonably well, but I wasn’t one of those macho guys who punched other guys in the shoulder, uttered a curse word every third word, watched football and drank beer, and ogled or hit on any attractive woman who walked in the room. Maybe I had been picking up behavior cues from women, not realizing they were gender-specific.

Now, I know gender is largely a social construction, or many think so anyway, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a guy engaging in what is typically considered “feminine” behavior. But in my case, I did it unknowingly, not as a deliberate choice. Now that I’m aware of my tendency to mimic, I can control it, decide what behaviors I want to copy, and which I don’t.

I should add that, as my psychologist later pointed out, everybody, even neurotypicals, engages in imitation to a certain degree. Ironically, it’s a form of empathy (ironic because Aspies are often said to lack that trait.) The difference with Aspies, as I understand the scholarly research, is the degree of imitation.

I still struggle with the question of what / who is my true self. I guess everyone does to a certain extent, but for me, and other Aspies I presume, the trouble is the lack of “rules.”  There are no rules for how to behave when conversing with others — whether to curse (and how much), whether to talk a lot or a little, whether to tease others, how sensitive to be to others’ feelings, whether to make statements I suspect will be seen as inappropriate, what to talk about, who to talk to, when to engage in conversation, when to walk away, how friendly to be and to whom. These all involve choices, and for me, someone who doesn’t have an intuitive feel and likes to approach decisions rationally and deliberately, they are difficult to make.

One of the most profound things I’ve learned, although it sounds like a cliche, is that I should never behave a certain way just because others are. Of course, there are certain social norms that should be respected, like the criminal laws (although even there, you have to know what activities, like speeding, jaywalking and gambling, people routinely engage in, and society condones, legal prohibitions notwithstanding). But for the most part, behavior is a choice. And I suppose it’s liberating to realize, finally, that I get to decide who I am … even though it means I have many tough decisions to make.

For all your Aspies out there, male and female, do you think you mimic the behavior of others? And does it bother you?

Even frogs do it ... or are they toads?

Even frogs do it … or are they toads?

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23 thoughts on “Asperger’s and Mimicry or Imitation — My Experience

  1. I do indeed mimic others often. This usually helps me in difficult situations so I do not need to be as anxious about what to do. However when people (often young adults or teens) are talking about subjects or with language that make me uncomfortable (which is often), I get very anxious. Part of me goes to the mimicking role while I also want to be the opposite. So then I tend to the other extreme of being as different as possible. For example, I start talking very quietly and old-fashioned while others are swearing or saying lewd jokes. So, I feel mixed about mimicking. It can be helpful but I agree that it is hard to know who I really am. I feel like I change so much to be what others want to see.

    • Hi Anna Rose!

      Thanks for your comment. It’s interesting you go to the other extreme, or do so at least sometimes. I guess one could call it anti-mimicking. 🙂 I think that takes a lot of courage, because you know you’re differentiating yourself from others. Perhaps that gives a glimpse into the “real” you. (After I wrote that, it occurred to me it might be presumptuous — but I can’t help saying what’s on mind.)

      Btw, I just visited your blog and really enjoyed it, and your perspective on life.

      Very glad to meet you, virtually,

      UA

  2. Echolalia in my house = If my husband mentions he likes seafood my son decides he can’t live without it. If I like coffee, my 11 year old will have a cup of joe as well. I am aware that it is empathy, which is very sweet, but what bothers me is that he doesn’t appear to notice it. He will repeat my exact statements within a minute of my saying them as if (well in my opinion) they were his own. I have tried saying “Thank you for showing that you understand what I feel by repeating it ” and he does not comprehend. It gets comical sometimes because it is very obvious to everyone but him, but sometimes I want him to rebel and say he hates something I just declared that I like. He reminds me of the African grey parrot which tends to choose one human to… ahem… “parrot”.

    • Hi,

      Thank you for your comment. I can see how your son’s behavior would be frustrating. It sounds like, as you say, he really doesn’t notice he is parroting others. It’s also possible his agreeing with family members is part of a pattern of behavior. For Aspies (as you’ve probably learned), it’s often hard to navigate the infinite number of choices and preferences in the world. Expressing an opinion identical to a family member (or friend) is probably a safe choice in a chaotic and confusing world. But, for what it’s worth, I’ve changed immensely since I was 11 — and one difference is I’m much more comfortable having opinions and preferences of my own.

      Thanks for sharing your personal experience with Asperger’s. I hope you visit again.

  3. Pingback: Aspergers Syndrome And Mimicking Speech | Searching for answers to Aspergers Syndrome

  4. I may or may not have AS, but if not, I’m right on the cusp.
    I am an absolute mimic and have channeled this to my advantage over the years, carefully studying the behavior of my fellow students like a crazed anthropologist. I surveyed (cringe) classmates in middle-school asking what I did that annoyed them. This failed, badly. I tried to study behavior and facial expressions as well. I went from being a long-haired, strange voiced, awkward, spindly geek to a carefully controlled copycat.
    I’m reminded of a story I heard in college of a Haitian immigrant who was harassed in elementary school in the US for being different and having an accent. He grew up, leaned perfect English, moved to England, and became an English teacher. He does not attribute this to his formative experiences.
    I too am a metaphorical English teacher in England. I channel all my aspie skills into trainspotting social patterns and behavior. I’m in freakin’ public relations for goodness sake– and I’m fantastic at it. People say I have a real way with others. I’m charming, in a quirky charismatic way. Mostly it’s because I mimic, and pattern, and study, and learn. All the social stuff is a carefully learned second language.
    My one dear friend I confided in that I think I have AS things I’m full of it. Little does he realize, I always feel like a brain in a jar, secretly navigating my android Allie-machine through a world of politics and intrigue.

    • Welcome to the blog! And so sorry about my extremely tardy response.

      You and I sound very similar. I identify so much with your experiences. The few people I have confided in too have questioned whether I have Asperger’s. Even my psychiatrist (whom I see occasionally for medical management but didn’t diagnose me — that was a psychologist who specializes in Asperger’s) recently expressed skepticism. Ostensibly, he was applauding me for succeeding despite the condition; but I also detected some skepticism (but maybe that’s a Catch-22; aren’t Aspies supposed to be unable to read such clues?!?).

      I’ve often thought of myself as an anthropologist. Even when I was younger, other kids used to comment that I seemed to be studying everyone, which creeped them out. They probably assumed I was judging them, which I guess was not entirely untrue, but mostly I was just observing. Human interaction is really fascinating, including things like office politics. I can definitely see how certain types of Aspies would fit in every well in PR.

      Such a great analogy to learning a “second language.” I feel exactly the same way. In fact, that’s what I told my psychiatrist the other day (when I sensed his skepticism). To carry it out further, there is a difference between a native speaker and someone who learns the language through studying and practice. It doesn’t prevent the latter from mastering the language … but there still is a difference. It was said of Nabokov that his writing was brilliant but it wasn’t “English.” It was beautifully written English, of course. But he learned it while growing up in Russia, taught by English-speaking Russian governesses. So it gave him a very different perspective on the language, which almost surely contributed to the uniqueness of his writing.

      Anyway, sorry for the rambling. Thanks again for commenting — I look forward to many more insightful points from a fellow chameleon!

  5. I just realized today that I might have aspergers. I’m 30, and I was reading a blog article that described the symtoms and it was like being hit with a ton of bricks….that was 2 hours ago..? Ish.

    I googled mimicry and aspergers and found this page, because I’ve always mimicked accents, cadence, and speech patterns, subconsciously. Actually, it’s helped with foreign languages – my Japanese accent is great. Though if I hang out with male Japanese friends, I start to sound like a guy….

    When I was a kid, I mimiced speech patterns from books. If I read tom sawyet, I said yes’m. If I read little house on the prairie, I said ma and pa. Drove my mom nuts.

    Anyways, thanks for the post. Still….processing.

    • Hi and welcome to the blog! Discovering you might have Asperger’s can involve a rollercoaster of emotions (even for us supposedly unemotional Aspies) but the most important thing is you’ve started the process. It doesn’t even matter, frankly, whether you meet the clinical definition of not (I received a diagnosis but sometimes I question it) — it’s really about discovering more about yourself.

      Lately, it seems I’ve been moderating (is that a word?) some of my Aspie characteristics … but mimicry is still there, going strong. My daughter (who isn’t an Aspie but has some characteristics) and I lately have been repeating lines (including accents and facial expressions) from characters in the BBC show “Sherlock,” much to my wife’s dismay. Nothing wrong with doing something that gives you pleasure, in my opinion, within limits — talking like Tom Sawyer or Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty to one’s boss during a work meeting might be a different story!

  6. Hi there – great post, thank you for sharing your experiences so openly. I found your post because I’m writing a post about my daughter [who has Aspergers] and mimicry. The post is actually about self harm, but I was looking for some good information about mimicry to link to my post.

    My question is – may I please link your post to mine? Your post articulates and explains it better than anything else I’ve read so far.

    Thanks for your time
    Amanda

    • Hi Amanda,

      Of course you can link to my post! With such high praise, how could I decline? (Even without it, I would have still said yes.)

      I’m so glad you found the post helpful.

      You mentioned self-harm — I’m sorry to hear about that being an issue. Adolescence can be an especially difficult time for Aspies; I certainly struggled. I wish you and your daughter the best.

      • Thank you! I’ve linked your post. My blog is still new and I’m yet to give anyone the address — I’m being such a wimp about it. I feel like I’m still finding my blog voice, I expect that’s common for a lot of people in the beginning. I’m thinking I’ll let everyone know where to find it tomorrow, and get it over with.

        My daughter is 11 and started self harming about a month ago. I knew she would one day, I had a strong gut instinct about it, I just didn’t expect it yet. It’s very hard to get the right sort of help. She still slots into the children’s services & not the adolescent services. Anyway, thank you for your reply, your posts are great — you actually made me laugh out loud in one of your posts!

      • I’m sorry to hear about the self-harm. But I would be very interested to read your blog and see your perspective as a parent. I say just take the leap and post!

        I’m glad I actually wrote something that elicited laughter. But I have to ask: what was it?!?

  7. Pingback: Surviving a Music Festival as an Aspie: Or How I Stopped Worrying About Being Cool | Undercover Aspie

  8. Hi there!

    The bit that made me laugh was “and I think at one point he may have looked at me”, in your post about Sheldon. Apologies if it wasn’t meant to be funny, but it tickled my funny bone.

    My blog is: http://www.waving-notdrowning.blogspot.com.au

    It’s still new and I still feel awkward. I think I’m mostly my main audience so far but I’ve only told a few people about it.

  9. I just realized that I’ve done this for as long as I can remember. To be honest, I don’t have any idea what my personal “style” is; I’ve never experienced it. When I’m talking to someone, I take on their accent, their sentence structure, and even their hand movements. I’m a woman, but I often copy my brothers’ quiet, harsh, mountain-man personality traits, i.e. how they stand, their mistrust of everyone on the planet, their devotion to hard work and honor, etc. I’ve been known to dress and act like the characters on a show I’ve binge-watched on Netflix. When I was binging on Walking Dead, I was a prepper, dressing in camo and target shooting at the local gun range…. I got awards in high school for my acting ability. Became the center of attention at parties. And it was all because I was simply copying everything around me. I never set out to do it. It just sort of happens. It’s such an unbelievable revelation for me.

  10. I don’t happen to be on the spectrum, but it runs in my family. Someone asked the other day if my dad was autistic. He did mimic/imitates voices, accents. I do too! Always could. Dad was “an eccentric engineer/mathemetician” and I’ve read a passage sooi many times with that phrase describing a possible cause of autism from such a person. Think dad would have been bullied had he not been great at sports…and doing imitations. I myself have worked in broadcasting for many years, and feel many co workers (male) were slightly on the spectrum. Stimming, everything. Thanks for letting me spew this out! Also think aspies would be great videographers!

  11. In my family, my father has always been known to have Asperger’s (at least to some level). It does get hard sometimes, but we’ve grown used to it. I had already done some research on the topic but returned to it one day after my father told me I appeared to have Asperger’s. I never wondered or questioned myself about it, as I have never cared enough, but I returned to it as the curiosity increased.

    I have never though about myself with Asperger’s (my twin sister seems much more introvert and shy than I am, and suffers from what she calls ‘anxiety problems’). I have always appeared as the charismatic and intelligent daughter who appears to have a future in both politics and science. Though I am charismatic and I am able to use the “powers of seduction” as an advantage, I am quite shy on the inside, and it becomes obvious when I am introduced to an unknown environment. I can change from being an energetic lady to a taciturn one. I have acquired different skills to appear more social (a few months ago I was applauded by a man who thought I had great body language, something which I have only acquired by reading and observing). My lack of empathy has gone to extremes (a psychologist asked me to go to religious therapy after listening to me).

    Though I know reading through your post won’t tell me if I have Asperger’s (and I don’t expect to know nor I find it useful in my life), it has given me a sense of why I appear to change personality in seconds and appear different to people, and thus I must thank you for your post, it has been an delightful journey. Now I understand why I don’t understand myself. Thank you.

  12. Pingback: Are You Sure the Only You is You? – Late Autism Diagnosis

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